The short stories in A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel are like a collection of emotions. From the story of a freight ship full of grandmothers in denial of their own demise, to the story of a young girl who believes her unborn child is actually a mythical creature, Ausubel is able to capture raw emotion while telling impossible stories. The stories are fantasies, dreams, and harsh realities, and yet they are not unbelievable. The characters themselves are complex. They relate feelings that connect to a deep human experience, but no one would ever share. For this reason, even though these stories are uncomfortable and fantastical, we want to believe them if only so these characters can continue on their journey.
The title itself is representative of the complexity of the stories. A Guide to Being Born is not merely about birth itself, but the various rebirths that one experiences throughout life and even after death. In “The Ages,” Ausubel juxtaposes the beginning of life with the ending of life, shown through the eyes of an unnamed girl and boy. They see their future in their elderly neighbors and are both fascinated and horrified. Ausuble does not provide answers to their questions because the pair is essentially trying to understand the meaning of life itself. Instead, she leaves the reader—the true girl or boy—with even more questions about their own life.
Femininity also plays a strong part in this collection. Specifically, the presence of women as bearers of life and the connections that women share. In “Poppyseed,” Roger and Laura have a daughter named Poppy who is handicapped from the neck down and nearly brain dead. Poppy’s doctor recommends that she have a procedure to make it impossible for Poppy to have children in order to spare her puberty and possible sexual assault. Laura, Poppy’s mother, has visions of running away with Poppy and sparing her this surgery. She talks to her frequently and writes letters to her, even though Poppy cannot respond and barely looks at Laura. To Laura, making Poppy barren means giving up their connection as women. Also, it means giving up on the idea that Poppy will ever be normal. In this story, Ausubel expertly captures the connection that mothers and daughters share. Laura is just a mother searching for a connection with her daughter; she loves her completely even though Poppy is incapable of returning that love. Roger also loves Poppy and even pays another girl close to Poppy’s age to explain to him what it’s like to be a little girl. He wants normality and love from his daughter, yet taking care of Poppy is like continually taking care of a baby. Laura and Roger could give up or go crazy, but they press onward. Not necessarily because they are brave or selfless, but because they are parents who love and care for their child. Poppy is not their chore, but their blessing.
In “The Ages,” and some of Ausubel’s other stories, she inserts the reader into the story and plays out a realistic scenario. In others, she portrays unbelievable scenarios in order to help us question what we think is real and how we love. In “Chest of Drawers,” Ben finds that a set of drawers have appeared on his chest. Rather than being horrified by this, Ben is excited. His wife, Annie, even grows to love the drawers. He eventually places items in these little drawers: baby dolls, scraps of paper, and a yellow plastic magnet. Annie is pregnant and Ben felt an absence within his own body before the drawers appeared. Ausubel seems to be playing with the idea that men can cultivate life too. This story is very odd, but one can’t help but feel happy for Ben—he truly loves his wife and has now found his own way to nest.
The link between playfulness and love is what brings Ausubel’s stories alive. No matter how odd the story or the characters, Ausubel is able to connect the reader to the humanity within. She also questions preconceived notions in society, like why can’t men nest? Or, is death really the end, or a continuous journey? Though her stories never answer these questions, Ausubel juxtaposes the discontinuity of life with the love of humanity, which allows the reader to feel comfort even in the midst of the weirdness. Through her unconventional approach, Ausubel captures the search for love and connection that we all seek.
Ramona Ausubel is the author of No One is Here Except All of Us (2012), winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction, and the VCU First Novelist Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Electric Literature, FiveChapters, Green Mountains Review, Slice, and online in The Paris Review. Ausubel has been a finalist for the Puschart Prize, among others. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where she won the Glenn Shaeffer Award in Fiction and served as editor of Faultline Journal of Art & Literature. Ausubel has taught and lectured at the University of California, Irvine, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Pitzer College, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently a faculty member of the Low-Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Ausubel is currently at work on a new novel and a new collection of stories.